Thursday, May 21, 2009
written by Grant Morrison, penciled by Frank Quitely
Graphic novels allow for an incredibly plastic density. A book’s pace can vary according to a wide variety of factors. In the post directly preceding this one, I discussed ‘Grendel: Devil’s Reign.’ That comic alternated between two sequences, one told in a text-heavy grid pattern, while the other favored much more open and even panoramic paneling. The sheer amount of text on the page in a comic book can really quicken the pace, but it also allows the reader to slow down considerably. A verbally sparse page can be an incredibly interactive one. Frank Miller and Geof Darrow’s wonderful ‘Hard Boiled’ was a book relatively light on dialogue that could be read in about ten minutes, but could also take thirty minutes or longer. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s recent ‘We3’ compares to ‘Hard Boiled’ to a great extent, not the least being its deceptively sparse dialogue and a heavy reliance on visuals to carry subtextual information.
‘We3’ follows an experimental biological warfare program engineering domestic house pets in order to assassinate, subdue and destroy the enemies of the state. We3 consists of three prototypical models – a dog, a cat and a rabbit, biofitted in miniature tanks and specialized in artillery, stealth and explosives respectively. These test subjects are operated while in the field via a remote touch pad that resembles nothing if not a PS2 game controller. Doctor Trendle, one of the top scientists assigned to the We3 program, explains, while holding the remote control, that “This is the gun of the future. And our wars of tomorrow will be fought by remote-controlled animals, like these. Living weapons…” The goal of these ‘living weapons,’ strangely enough, are “…to save the lives of countless men and women in our armed services.” Of course, a military weapon is bound to do exactly the opposite of ‘saving lives,’ and such an intention is questionable at best, and most likely militaristic doubletalk.
Grant Morrison has been very vocal about his support of animal rights over the years. He's mentioned it in his work at least as early as ‘Animal Man,’ his first stateside assignment, discussed elsewhere on this blog. Morrison has also mentioned, both in interviews and in the final issue of ‘Animal Man,’ that he is a devoted cat-owner. The book is dedicated to “…Vinegar Tom, Mina, BB, Jarmara, Trudy, Stanley, Princess, Katinka, and the boys, Toby and Cheesey.” Those sound like pets to me.
Thankfully though, ‘We3’ mostly steers clear of sentimentalism. While the three test animals, designated 1 through 3, have somehow been granted the ability to speak, they remain animals. They speak with human words, but they don’t express human sentiments. Their verbal utterances are mostly exhortations for food or acceptance. 3, a pet rabbit bioengineered to strategically drop explosives, speaks mostly in single syllables – “NO. GRASS. EAT. NOW. EAT.” 1, who was a dog named Bandit before being kidnapped by the military, retains his stalwart devotion to mankind, whom he refers to as “BOSS.” 1 frames all events according to whether he “IS GUD DOG.” At one point in the graphic novel, 1 pulls what appears to be a drowning man from a river after an explosion. “GUD DOG,” 1 says, “HELP MAN.” As the panel pulls back, we see the man’s lower body has been completely blown away. As 1 and 2 make their escape from the military reconnaissance team, a sea gull pulls the flesh from the dead man’s vertebrae.
The comic book gets a lot of mileage out of a reader’s natural inclination to humanize these animals through their sympathy. ‘We3’ isn’t tragic because these animals are like humans, but precisely because they are not. They may be able to speak, but as Doctor Trendle advises in reference to 1, “He’s only a dog. Don’t expect the sonnets of Shakespeare.” These three animals, twisted through military technology into lethal machines, have little cognition of what they have been forced to do, or who is doing this to them. 3’s mechanical tail is damaged during a violent fracas with remote-controlled rats on a railway bridge. Later, 3 wanders away from 1 and 2 and is found on a desolate highway, attempting to speak with a gun-toting hunter. 3 asks the terrified man, “BOSS. FIX. TAIL. FIX TAIL HOME. NOW. EAT.” The three test animals retain their domestic devotion and, importantly, reliance on humanity, despite everything that has been done to them.
The animals’ strongest emotional connection is to Doctor Berry, the scientist who personally trained them for military service. Berry is accidentally eviscerated in an attempt to save the three test animals, but not before telling 1 “The name on your collar was ‘Bandit.’ U. R. Bandit.” This leads to a primitive, but extraordinary, self-awareness, as 1 realizes “BAD COAT. COAT. IS COAT NOT “BANDIT... IS COAT NOT WE.” These fitful stumbles towards a self-aware cognition are played against the violence and brutality of We3’s survival.
The cover of the collected edition alludes to “The Incredible Journey,” a young adult novel later adapted in the 1990s as the movie “Homeward Bound.” We3, like the pets in the above-mentioned children’s literature, are also concerned with arriving ‘Home,’ though the intricacies of this concept is difficult for the three animals to grasp. 2, a kidnapped house cat, questions 1’s insistence on running toward some questionable ‘home,’ and asks “?HOME? 1 SAY HOME. 1 KNOW 0. ?HOME IS?” To which 1 replies “HOME. ? IS RUN NO MORE.” The three navigate their world through an insistence upon survival in the moment. This leads to disconnects of startling violence – 2 sends a projectile needle through the skull of a helicopter pilot, or 1 may just as easily eviscerate a ground soldier as ask “IS GUD DOG?” Artist Frank Quitely never shirks from depicting both moments with an elegant, exact line.
I compared “We3” earlier to Frank Miller and Geof Darrow’s “Hard Boiled.” Both works are distinct entities – yes, “We3” has nothing of “Hard Boiled”s nihilism and misanthropy, but both are visually dense works of progressive brutality that allow their artists the space and freedom to contribute a strong textual density. Both Darrow and Quitely are detail-oriented in their work, but the latter is much more concerned with motion and fluidity. Darrow’s hyper-detailed work is for the most part static, it’s a monument or a vast puzzle– the reader can’t help but stop in the midst of “Hard Boiled”s narrative and take in all of the visual cues hidden on the page. Quitely is more cognizant than Darrow of pacing; he establishes flow through the totality of the page. For instance, when We3 are attacked by a military jeep, the double-page spread is split into two vertical images – one of the jeep being penetrated by the reinforced, tank-like bodies of the escaped animals, and the second of 2 perched on a tree branch firing lethal, needle-like projectiles at the attacking soldiers. In each of these two panels, small boxes of violent detail are laid on top of the larger image. Time is, of course, spread across these panels – but then again, these spreads are visualizations of the jumble and deadly speed of combat. Time is disordered and lethal, and the reader must parse together the gruesome details as they occur in a confused flurry. Elsewhere, Quitely utilizes creative framing devices. He uses the supporting bars of a bridge as panel frames, therefore segmenting time within a single image.
“We3” is in many ways a brilliantly cinematic comic book in both its handling of pans and of pacing, but it would be a mistake to lump Morrison and Quitely’s book in with the concept of “widescreen comics” as proposed by writer Warren Ellis. I have always found Ellis’ proposal for widescreen, cinematic graphic novels to be incredibly problematic - it’s a crass concept, and one that misunderstands the strengths of a medium. The whole concept seems to advocate the bastardization of the medium as the red-haired stepson to film. It’s like saying poetry is ‘just’ music made with words. Alan Moore has discussed repeatedly that in his own work he has sought to create comic books that utilize the tools and characteristics singular to the medium. To his benefit, I have never seen Grant Morrison as a writer who subscribed to Ellis’ rather jaundiced idea of ‘widescreen comics.’ The artificial, highly stylized frames Quitely constructs in ‘We3’ call attention to his visual style as a comic book artist, and allows for a totalized pace within the unit of the page.
One can call ‘We3’ ‘cinematic,’ but a more appropriate adjective would be ‘kinetic.’ And the book’s kineticism is one that revels in an awareness of its own ‘comic book-ness.’ This book utilizes the formal potential of the narrative medium with the grace and economy of European masters such as Enki Bilal and Moebius and the formally inventive ‘80s work of American Matt Wagner. Sure, I can easily envision this book becoming a movie, but it always retains a completeness within its own graphic medium. ‘We3’ is a comic book, not a storyboard.